Business loans and support schemes taste like success

L-R: William McCulla, Invest NI’s director of corporate
finance, Fergal Green and Shay Mullan of Tom & Ollie, and UCF chief executive Dónal Traynor.
Gary McDonald Business Editor

BELFAST-based artisan food production company Tom & Ollie is among nearly 200 companies in Co Antrim to avail of support from the NI Small Business Loan Fund since 2013, making the total allocated to businesses in the county more than £4.3 million.

The fund is managed on behalf of Invest NI by Ulster Community Finance Ltd (UCF), a subsidiary of the social enterprise organisation Community Finance Ireland, and delivered in partnership with Enterprise NI.

Small businesses, sole traders and partnerships keen to develop their business can avail of loans up to £100,000, while start-up businesses can obtain initial loans of up to £15,000.

Tom & Ollie (Tomato and Olive), established in 2014 by friends Seamus Mullan, Hugh Cushnan and Fergal McGrainne from Broughshane, has its roots in local artisan and farmers markets, with a regular stall at the weekly St George’s Market in Belfast.

An artisan producer of pesto, tapenades, hummus and sun-dried tomatoes along with specialising in cheese and charcuterie, in 2017 the business undertook extensive R&D and product development work, aimed at expanding their wholesale & retail offering.

This resulted in new ranges for the retail and food service sector and the business has acquired high profile customers including Aldi, Lidl, Sheridan Cheesemongers & Pallas Foods.

To support this ongoing growth and associated working capital requirements, accessed £45,000 in 2020 from the Northern Ireland Small Business Loan Fund.

UCF chief executive, Dónal Traynor said: “Tom & Ollie is a forward-thinking business that has made the most of the demand for high quality, local artisan produce.

“The fast and flexible finance which the NI Small Business Loan Fund offers perfectly suited their growth ambitions and it has been impressive to see the expansion in their high-profile customer portfolio.

“As well as food production, sectors which have benefitted from the fund to date include manufacturing and, renewable energy. The fund is open to organisations throughout Co Antrim who are interested in learning how financial support of up to £100,000 could further their business ambitions.”

The NI Small Business Loan Fund is part of Invest NI’s Access to Finance suite of loan and equity funds.

William McCulla, Invest NI’s director of corporate finance, said: “We’ve worked closely with Tom and Ollie since 2019, offering practical business advice and support to expand its team and build its sales in the GB market.”

Meanwhile nearly 9,000 entrepreneurs across the north have been supported by the government-funded Go For It Programme over the past four years, with more than 3000 new business plans drawn up in 2021 alone, new figures show.

The scheme, which aims to help entrepreneurs to translate their business idea into reality, is delivered free of charge by a team of experienced business advisers across all 11 council areas, providing expert advice and help with developing a robust business plan, covering everything from financial forecasting to marketing and long-term sales growth.

Karl Simmonds was able to transform his furlough hobby - making sourdough bread - into Portrush-based artisan bakery Flat & Brown Bakehouse during lockdown, with help from Go For It (

“It gave me a push to set up a proper business rather than selling bread to neighbours and friends. It was an incentive to carry on and expand,” he says.

Melanie Harrison revamped a Victorian townhouse in south Belfast, transforming it into a quirky boutique hotel which celebrates the city's rich literary heritage, while nutrition student Amy Fry transformed her garage in Cullybackey into a studio specialising in problem skincare thanks to support from the scheme.

And former Gaelic player Eoghan Heaney from Armagh launched a fitness studio, Tribe Fitness, and was able to adapt the business plan to a remote model during lockdown.

“For somebody who is starting out and needs some clarification on how to manage and structure a business, the Go For It programme is definitely the thing to do,” he says.

Programme manager Dr Eugene McGuckin said: “Go For It continues to be a fantastic asset in helping entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland access the advice and support they need to develop a business plan.

“Almost 9,000 new business plans in four years is a remarkable milestone, and local Councils are proud that so many entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to establish the business of their dreams with the support of the programme.

“If you’re thinking about starting a business in 2022, I encourage you to get in touch and seek the support the Go For It Programme provides.”

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